Telling the story of international aid

My novel explores an aid worker's dilemmas.

When we discuss foreign aid policy, we tend to talk about money. Everyone knows that New Labour boosted British expenditure on overseas aid, and that the coalition government is committed to increasing the sums even further, in particular by spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development from 2013. In fact, this one pledge rather dominates the whole debate.

Arguably, focusing on the cost and quantity of aid distracts attention from the more important, though much trickier, assessment of its quality and impact. The distance between Whitehall and the slums of the developing world could hardly be bigger, and it is hard to be confident that money allocated in London will actually bring about more education or better housing in Karachi, Manila or Nairobi. On the contrary, making things happen on the ground is an almost unimaginably complex challenge, and in the large, fascinating literature on development policy, some of the most compelling chapters concern precisely this gap between good intentions and carefully laid plans on the one hand, and unintended, occasionally catastrophic results on the other.

This is where my own interest in the world of foreign aid and NGOs started to take hold. My novel Ten Weeks in Africa tells the story of an Englishman, Ed Caine, who goes out to east Africa with his family to run a slum development project for a British NGO. The characters’ experiences are based on numerous accounts of such programmes. But as a novelist, I wasn’t coming to this literature on aid principally in search of policy solutions. I wanted to know how things worked out in practice, from a personal perspective, for those who had taken up the challenge of implementing development projects in poor, politically unstable states – and what happened to their colleagues, and the intended beneficiaries. 

I have not worked in overseas aid, and I am certainly no expert. I found the stories of men and women who spent years trying to bring about improvements in the lives of the world’s poorest people, moving and often humbling. But it was also remarkably discouraging. Again and again in these accounts, high hopes and good intentions are defeated by a combination of endemic corruption and the brute forces of nature. And the fact that such problems are essentially familiar to us and ought to be foreseeable, does not seem to make them any easier to deal with in practice, nor is it generally reflected in the way aid is discussed in the media.

Through Ed’s experiences, I wanted to explore the situation of an NGO manager who finds he is responsible for a project that, in the end, just cannot be made to work. To such an "international", speaking the local languages poorly, if at all, even understanding the motives of his colleagues and advisers is hard; and, especially where money and power are concerned, every action triggers negative consequences.

Even impeccably conceived projects can cause harm in practice. Drilling a well will benefit one village, but if the new boreholes cause the water-table to drop, the area of drought in the surrounding country will expand. Providing starving people with emergency supplies is a moral duty. But what if supplies are stolen by militias, enabling them to finance their war and so prolong the famine?

Such dilemmas are not unusual, as the literature on aid makes abundantly clear, and there is seldom an easy solution. I certainly do not provide answers in Ten Weeks in Africa. What my novel does offer, I hope, is an opening into a world which is both personal and realistically complex. Illuminating the dignity and interior life of human agents is one of the things good fiction can do well; and if that in itself does not solve the world’s problems, it can at least remind us of the measure by which all hoped-for solutions must ultimately be judged.

JM Shaw’s novel "Ten Weeks in Africa" is published by Sceptre (£17.99)

Aid workers in South Sudan (Photograph: Getty Images)
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Image
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Under lock and key: inside the fairytale world of Helen Oyeyemi

Reading What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is like settling into a roller coaster.

Gepetta walks into a classroom in “is your blood as red as this? (yes)”, a story at the heart of Helen Oyeyemi’s first collection of tales. And, yes, her name looks familiar: a feminised slant on the creator of Pinocchio in Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century novel. Sure enough, the subject of the class is the history of puppetry; Gepetta is struck by the presence of Rowan Wayland, already settled in the room. There is an “ocean of space” around him; he seems to be either a pariah or a celebrity, maybe both. Gepetta can’t take her eyes off him. “Rowan’s physical effect – godlike jawline, long-lashed eyes, umber skin, rakish quiff of hair – is that of a lightning strike.” An inhuman beauty, one might say, and with good reason, for it becomes apparent that Rowan is a puppet, too, “masterless and entirely alive”.

It is a mark of Oyeyemi’s confidence that she masters such shifts so adeptly – but at the age of just 31 she is an experienced writer. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl, was written while she was still at school; she has since published four more, all of them built from a love of language and a fascination with fairy tales and mythology which have earned her comparisons with Angela Carter – and there are moments in this collection, certainly, which recall The Bloody Chamber. On the surface, Oyeyemi’s “dornička and the st martin’s day goose” looks like a riff on “Red Riding Hood”, an answer to Carter’s “Company of Wolves”, when Dornička meets a wolf on a mountain. Once again, however, things are not as they seem: “. . . let’s try to speak of things as they are: it was not a wolf she met but something that had recently consumed a wolf”. And Dornička is not a little girl but an adult; the story draws not only on what is familiar to us in western Europe but also the tales of the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben – it takes its epigraph from his ballad “The Golden Spinning Wheel”, a gruesome slant on a Cinderella tale.

Despite all these influences, the story is absolutely Oyeyemi’s own, set in a world where “speaking of things as they are” might lead the reader in any direction at all. And her arguments, about identity, about sexuality, are more fluid than Carter’s, as is to be expected from a writer of her generation and with her history. Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi has lived in the UK since the age of four. Writers with a foot in two places often have a keen sense of what it means to belong – or not to belong.

She plays with this idea most directly in “a brief history of the homely wench society”, in which a group of young women push down the doors of an all-male society at Cambridge University (the author’s alma mater; I reckon she knows whereof she speaks). What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is freighted with ideas of entry, of permission: it is a book full of locks and keys. In the opening story, “books and roses”, a foundling is left in a chapel; the little girl has a golden chain around her neck, and on the chain is a key. As she grows, the girl tries every lock, but no doors open. “. . . what could she call it, a notion, a suggestion, a promise?” She will discover that the key fits the door of a library that smells of leather and roses.

But the path to the door is not direct: like most of the tales in this book, “books and roses” loops and swirls, hooking characters together and then setting them apart, making the reader wait until the next story (or perhaps the one after that) to meet up with them again. Do not be misled by this recurrence; the stories here are linked not by a thread of events, but by a sensibility, one cut free from the constraints of conventional narrative. The tales’ swerving trajectory makes their peaks of emotion – as when a character in “presence” imagines the life of the child she has never had – all the more powerful. Reading What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is like settling into a roller coaster: you must abandon yourself to the turns and drops. Only then will you enjoy the ride.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi is published by Picador (263pp, £14.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism